‘Sonnet 26,’ also known as ‘Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage,’ is number twenty-six of 154 that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six). This poem is generally considered to be the end of the first twenty-five sonnets that came before it. Throughout this series, which includes the procreation sonnets, the speaker has spoken on several interwoven themes. These include immortality, youth, beauty, devotion, and the use, or lack thereof, in writing about love.
The speaker talks directly to the Fair Youth in these fourteen lines. He tries to explain his love for this young man but is unable to. He knows that it’s not going to be possible for him to write about this devotion until a star shines on him and transforms his abilities. The speaker wants the youth to know that his words do not represent how he feels as his emotions are so wide-ranging and all-encompassing. Any phrase falls flat in representing that.
‘Sonnet 26’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the traditional Shakespearean or English form. This specific arrangement of lines, with only a few instances of deviation, is used in all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The poem is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. They follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and are written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in poems by William Shakespeare, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 26’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, alliteration, and enjambment. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, the word “To” which begins lines three, four, and twelve.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. There are several examples in this poem. For instance, “Lord” and “love” in the first line and “wanting words” in line six. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines five and six as well as that between seven and eight.
Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 26,’ the speaker begins by addressing the Fair Youth as the “Lord of my love”. It is him that the speaker serves in all things. His worth, or “merit,” is what inspires this devotion. Because of how good the Fair Youth is, in all ways, the speaker has made himself loyal to him. They are “strongly knit” together.
It is through this poem, the speaker says, that he is trying to “send” a written record of that devotion. It is not an example of pure skill, rather the opposite. He’s not trying to “show [his] wit,” he says in line four.
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 26’ he adds that his “Duty” to the Fair Youth is “so great” it makes his writing seem poor in comparison. The youth should not judge his devotion based on the skill of his writing, the two are so different.
It is the speaker’s hope that by reading these words, and those of the previous sonnets, especially the last five or so, he’ll understand how the speaker feels.
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspéct
And puts apparel on my tattered loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect.
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then, not show my head where thou mayst prove me.
In the last quatrain of ‘Sonnet 26’ the speaker adds that the only time that he’ll really try to convey how much he loves the youth is after he is blessed by a “star,” that which guides his moving. It will maybe one day, allow him to speak accurately and fully on how he feels. It’ll let him dress up his “tattered” love so that it really looks and reads as what it is. It is then that his words will prove how worthy he is of the youth’s respect.
It is at that point that he’s going to “dare to boast” of how he loves the youth. Until that time he’s not going to show his “head” (his face) anywhere that would allow the youth to put the speaker’s words to the test.